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The Editorial Board: Give students masking breaks but tie the policy to crucial pandemic statistics

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School mask

A student wears a mask at A.J. Schmidt Elementary School in Anglola last year. Students need mask breaks, but the policy on wearing them should be directly linked to community rates of infection and vaccination.

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On the subject of masks in schools, two questions arise: Do students, especially the younger ones, need breaks from wearing them? And when can the mask requirement be dropped altogether?

The answers, in order, are: 1. Yes, obviously and, 2. when conditions allow, an eventuality that too few adults in Erie County are helping to achieve, but one that Albany can encourage.

The confusion over student mask breaks is aggravating and based on what looks like crossed wires and careless communication.

The matter arose last week when the Erie County Health Department wrote to officials in the Williamsville school district, which allows mask breaks. The letter noted that guidance from the state Health Department does not allow for mask breaks.

Later, after tempers rose, a spokeswoman for the Health Department seemed to contradict that position, writing: “To be clear, our letter did not remove the mask break as an option. We reminded this district of [state Health Department] guidance …

But the State Health Department is silent on the issue. It says that “provided that schools are permitting ‘mask breaks’ against the emergency regulations, local health officials are permitted to enforce these regulations as they determine necessary.”

Got that?

At a time of broad public frustration, clarity and consistency are needed. Without them, as one education official observed, a difficult time can become worse.

“One of the many things that frustrates people is you have inconsistent application of rules, or you have the enforcement of rules that defy logic,” said Hamburg Superintendent Michael Cornell, president of the Erie-Niagara School Superintendents Association. “That undermines the legitimacy of rules that might actually be necessary.”

This is an issue that state leaders need to clarify promptly and to do so in a way that bolsters education while preserving public health, which is already better in the region’s schools than it is outside them. Kids need some time without the masks. Figure out how to do it.

While they’re at it, state leaders also need to start contemplating the conditions under which school masking rules can be rescinded. Happily, there’s an obvious standard they can apply: Masks can come off when a county or region posts consistently low rates of infection and reaches a high level of full vaccination. That approach protects children while encouraging adults to think harder about their actions.

That may be especially useful in Erie County, where infections are outpacing the rest of the state. It protects the health of children while incentivizing adults to do the right thing. Not enough of them are doing it now.

Consider how Western New York counties compare to the state as a whole. Erie County’s daily rate of infection is 44 cases per 100,000 population, almost double the New York State average of 24 per 100,000. Niagara County’s rate is slightly worse at 47 per 100,000. Other Western New York counties show similarly high infection rates. That’s trouble.

Even more disconcerting is the comparison to New York City. Once the national ground zero for Covid-19, the city’s daily infection rate is now just 12 cases per 100,000 – a little more than one-quarter of Erie County’s rate.

The Delta variant of the coronavirus is causing problems around the country, especially in the North as cooler temperatures drive people indoors, where transmission of the virus is easier. Even places that have responded aggressively to the pandemic are suddenly seeing cases rise.

Vermont drove its infection rate to one of the country’s lowest, in part by posting one of the nation’s highest vaccination rates. But infections there rose 55% over two recent weeks, reaching 50 cases per 100,000 population. The rate of increase has now ticked down slightly, but public officials there are worried about overwhelming the state’s hospitals. The rate is only slightly worse than Erie County’s.

The causes of Vermont’s misery are uncertain. While cooler weather is surely a factor, the truth is that no vaccination is perfect. Although new infections are concentrated in the unvaccinated, some breakthrough cases are occurring, and while those people tend not to become seriously ill, they can transmit the virus to others, mainly to the unvaccinated.

That population of resisters remains a risk to the health care system, businesses, the economy and the community, including its schools.

It may seem odd, but the low transmission rate of Covid-19 in schools proves the value of masks and the need, for now, to keep using them. Schools are comparative safe zones specifically because of such requirements, which teachers and other adults are able to enforce. School Covid policies are a success story. They should be continued until they are safe to discard.

Because of foolhardy people, we’re not there. So keep the masks – but give the kids a break, too. And, if you’re not vaccinated, please do so. You’re part of the problem.

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What’s your opinion? Send it to us at lettertoeditor@buffnews.com. Letters should be a maximum of 300 words and must convey an opinion. The column does not print poetry, announcements of community events or thank you letters. A writer or household may appear only once every 30 days. All letters are subject to fact-checking and editing.

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